mentor blogMENTOR: “To advise/train someone especially a younger colleague”

This past week I was delivering a kickoff keynote to a conference titled: “Managing Mentors”. My topic was listed as “Mentoring Works”.

With 33 years as an Army leader in my kit bag I did not envision this task as a “heavy lift”, however, it was heavier than I expected as I went through my “mentor packing list” I uncovered a few thoughts along the way.

Specifically; ROLE CLARIFICATION: When I entered the Army no one spoke to me about “mentoring” or “being mentored”. I was expected to lead and be led. It required coaching my subordinates before and during events and counseling them after the event (also known as After Action Reviews). Additionally, I was required to do an annual performance appraisal on my direct reports and those I senior rated (2 levels down). Meeting this requirement resulted in performance counseling sessions on a routine basis (usually quarterly). The sessions were oriented on how well the individual was using their skills to assist the unit in attaining organizational objectives. Put another way, were they helping getting the job done, or not?

MENTOR SELECTION: Recently I was in an organizational headquarters and there were poster boards on every floor, foyer and high traffic area (by the snack bar). They asked the question “Want a Mentor?...Get a Mentor” and gave a web address that directed those interested to a sign up process. I was reminded of the comment by the late comedian Alan King regarding volunteers “Remember, no one asked them”. How does one become a mentor? Find a mentor?. As an instructor I often have students ask for “mentoring” as if they are filling out a checklist. Do I have a; job (check), budget to manage (check) , deliverables to produce (check) mentor (check)

A QUESTION TO CONSIDER: All this thought became an “earworm” in my mind that drove me to this question; “Do we need mentors because leaders are failing to exercise their coaching and counseling responsibilities? Are mentors a fallback position for this leadership shortfall?

Some facts to ponder:

  • In a recent Harvard Study 25% of people have a dread of performance appraisals
  • In another study, 30% of those receiving performance reviews experienced a decrease in performance after the review
  • In a February 2013 article “The Corporate Kabuki of Performance Reviews” the Washington Post reported that 77% of HR managers were “dissatisfied” regarding how their companies conducted performance evaluations.

I’m not against mentors in a guidance role. Rest assured I would not have enjoyed the success I had in the Army without those older veterans watching out for me and guiding me. I just don’t want to be lulled by a mentor policy replacing a leadership responsibility.. In fact I have often had (and observed) leaders and supervisors morph into mentors once the direct report relationship no longer exists.

It’s not either mentors or supervisors, the workforce needs both


  • Generate light vs heat in the feedback process. Leaders can get intensely focused on a project and bring “heat” to bear. Mentors offer some distance from the workspace and can shine a light.
  • Be a “safe” sounding board that the mentee can bounce ideas off of.
  • Take excuses away, challenge assumptions. The mentor can ask questions like “What makes you think that?”
  • Focus on the future, the mentee may be thinking about the inbox and getting to Friday. The supervisor may be focused on the this quarter’s numbers. The mentor can ask “Where do you want to be in 5 years? Is what you’re doing today helping you get there?”

Before you and your organization embrace a mentoring process, ask how it fits in your overall employee development model.

As I said at the beginning “Mentoring Works!...It Depends”

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